A traditional Bulgarian Christmas Tradition
– A Pig Slaughter

In Straldja, Bulgaria

Photos in chronological order.  Click on one to see the larger photo.

The Bulgarian word for Christmas is “Koleda.”  People from around Straldja say that the name is derived from the Bulgarian word “to butcher,” because the primary ritual of this time of year is the slaughter of a pig.

The Bulgarian word “kolya” means “to slaughter or butcher.”  A “kolach” is a butcher.  “Kolbasi,” of course, is sausage and a “kolbasar” is a pig butcher or sausage maker.  So that certainly makes sense.

When I asked the Peace Corps language instructor a couple of weeks ago about it, she insisted that the word “koleda” comes from the Greek word “calend” meaning the first of the year, and that the word “koleda” therefore means “new year’s day.”

Well, I certainly know better than that!  The word is “calends” and it isn’t Greek, it’s Latin, and it doesn’t mean the first of the year, but the first of the month.   The Romans had three words for  important days of each month.  “Calends” was the first day of the month.  In fact, the word “calendar” literally means a “collection of calends,” that is, a listing of the first days of each month.  The other two important Roman days were the “nones” or ninth of each month, and the “ides,” approximately the middle of the month, falling on the 13th or the 15th depending on the month.  Everyone knows that Julius Caesar was killed on the “Ides of March,” or March 15.  My birthday happens to fall, by the way, on the Ides of September (September 13.)

The Romans had a saying, when they talked about something that wasn’t going to ever take place, that it would occur on “a Greek calends,” because the Greek calendar didn’t have a calends!

Anyway, the word “koleda” more than likely DOES mean “day of slaughter.”  I think the “calends” story is a bit of folk etymology invented to convince the communists that it really wasn’t a religious holiday at all!

In this part of Bulgaria, which is located in what was, four thousand years ago, the ancient land of Thrace, the most important ritual at Koleda is the slaughter of a pig. Quite possibly the origins of the ritual are Thracian.

On Saturday, December 8, 2001, Edith and I were invited by the mayor of Straldja (Dr. Andon Vasilev) to witness the ritual.  We were picked up by car at around 9:30 a.m. and driven to a home  in the eastern part of town.  The day was bitter cold, with a dusting of snow on the ground.  We had awakened to see drifts of snow scurrying down the street before a fierce wind.

 The slaughter took place, of course, outside, though most of the time it was done inside a “greenhouse,” an outside structure composed of a frame covered partially with light plastic.  At least it blocked most of the wind and, with the flame used to singe the pig’s bristles, kept slightly warmer than the outside.

The location was the home of Todor, a friend of the mayor’s.  About 8 men took part in the actual slaughter, while the women were inside preparing dinner.  I took a series of photos of the slaughter and of the “na gosti” afterwards.

Outside the greenhouse was a large pot on a metal frame over an open wood fire.  Two men were busy cutting wood, stoking the fire and keeping water boiling in the pot.  The water was used to clean utensils, to wash the bristles off, and to clean every part of the process.

The pig, a huge sow, was killed with a knife to the throat, which really succeeded only in allowing the poor animal to drown in its own blood.  It wasn’t a quick, painless process.

When the pig was finally dead, the carcass was taken inside the greenhouse and placed on a large metal table.  A hand-pumped kerosene burner, plus two propane burners, were used to singe the carcass.

As the process was just beginning, the women came out with “greina rakiya,” like a hot toddy made of rakiya and sugar, which was immediately passed around to all the men.  Inside the house, the women also drank the “greina rakiya” (warm brandy) along with herbal tea. 

The carcass was charred twice, first for the visible bristles and the second time to cook the skin and remove the final bristles.  After each charring, the skin was scraped repeatedly with knives.

Portions of the skin were taken off and rolled up in small bundles, placed on a plate with salt, and passed around to be eaten.  I passed on that!  I hadn’t eaten red meat in many years and wasn’t about to start the process with pigskin.

Other portions were cut off and put inside a wire frame to be cooked in the fire under the water pot outside.  This was later passed around for everyone to eat and I did take a token piece.  Also, a large pitcher of home-made white wine was passed around to all the men.

The mayor, a professional surgeon, worked as hard (if not harder!) than the others.  In fact, he was called upon to select out the organs, etc., using (of course) his surgical skills!

Everything (except the blood, which is not used in this region, though it is in other areas of Bulgaria) was used. The hams and larger meat portions were tied with string and hung up outside to drain.  The intestines were cleaned thoroughly and used to make sausage – which would boil in the outside water pot after the butchering was completed.

When the butchering was over, we went inside for the “na gosti” or party that followed the process.  More home-made rakiya and white wine were passed around and there were snacks available.  The home was quite nice, with a large fireplace in one corner of the living room, ablaze with rather friendly flames.

The “dining room table”  in a Bulgarian home looks rather like what we’d call a coffee table in the States.  It’s a long, low table, surrounded by couches, chairs and stools, located in the living area.  Everyone sits around the table for dinner.

The hostesses brought out bowls of what they call summer salad, a pickled combination of vegetables – peppers, carrots, cauliflower, okra, etc. – and bowls of fried bits of pork liver and pork lean portions.  Everyone ate from the same bowls of food.  Later, the main dish, a traditional stew of pork and cabbage, which had been boiling in the kitchen all morning in a large cauldron, was served.  Here, everyone got an individual bowl to eat from.

The mayor brought out a large bottle of his own home-made wine, a red wine, to join the other products.  There was also “lemonade” and coffee available, of course.  The lemonade is a lemon-flavored soda.

Later, cake and some of my chocolate-chip cookies were brought out, along with some “American-style” popcorn.

Everyone was extremely friendly.  They put on traditional Bulgarian music on a CD player, and people would do some traditional dancing.  Edith joined in for most of them.  I did the “horo” a couple of times, but I don’t know any of the other traditional dances here.

The “na gosti” lasted until almost 10 p.m., more than 12 hours!  This is apparently about normal for Bulgaria.  The last thing they served was some of the sausage, that had been cooking for several hours.

On Sunday, by the way, Edith and I walked downtown for some shopping (the refrigerator still isn’t repaired!) and passed by a garage where people were slaughtering a pig – exactly the same way we’d seen the day before.

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Fire for boiling water Chopping wood for fire Preparing the burners Bringing the pig out
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Killing the pig Washing off blood Singeing Pouring the "greina" rakiya
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Serving the greina (warmed) rakiya Singeing Edith and Donka Singeing
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Scraping Scraping Singeing Cutting onions in kitchen
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Last singeing Final scraping Preparing to butcher Butchering
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Taking out guts Preparing to take off hams, etc. Some young guests Hostess, Edith and Donka in kitchen
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Todor, our host, in front of fireplace The mayor Donka's husband Around the dinner table
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"Nazdravay" Yordan Todor and friend Cooking the sausages
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"Nazdravay" Around the table